Inside the World of Christian Student Orgs

Christian clubs make up a good portion of student organizations at UCSD. Despite having a visible presence, many believe that students should steer clear. The UCSD Guardian spoke with these clubs to hear about what sets them apart from other types of organizations.

Most students come to college hoping to prepare for their careers, join clubs, go to parties, and of course, further their education. Seeking out ways to practice religion and grow in their faith aren’t usually included in these expectations.

Yet, many students are involved with some type of faith-based student organization during their time at UC San Diego — there are currently 35 graduate and undergraduate spiritual student organizations on campus. Of these 35 organizations, the vast majority fall in line with some type of Christianity or Catholicism.

Looking at the broader context of religion in the United States, it makes sense that there would be a large Christian presence on campus. In California, 63 percent of adults identify as Christian. This percentage is slightly higher in San Diego alone, where 68 percent of adults are Christian.

Nevertheless, in a college environment it’s still a wonder that so many young people are actively engaged in religious organizations. Millennials are showing the lowest percentages of religious affiliations in history, making up 44 percent of adults in the U.S. who do not identify with any organized religion.

The relatively high rates of religious indifference in our generation can make college campuses some of the toughest places to evangelize. For the most part, students are reluctant to hear what these religious organizations have to say — especially in the heavily academic atmosphere of UCSD, where students are likely less inclined to devote time to religious extracurriculars.

Ron Rubio, an Earl Warren College senior and leader of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, observed that this hesitance to be involved with religious organizations may stem from a popular misunderstanding that these clubs force their beliefs on students.

“People automatically get turned off the moment they hear you are a religious organization. I think there are unfair assumptions that all religious organizations want to do is convert people but many of them just want people to understand where their beliefs come from,” Rubio said. “Like sure, if someone wants to choose to be a Christian, that’s amazing and I’d be incredibly joyful! But first and foremost, I would want them to know how much someone out there cares for them, not because of what they’ve done, but merely because of who they are.”

Emmalene Bernal, an Eleanor Roosevelt College junior and member of Zion Bible Study Club, noted that while negative attitudes toward religious organizations make it difficult to reach out to fellow students, some students are willing to hear what they have to say.

“Some people seem to be indifferent to religious organizations,” Bernal said.“From what I’ve experienced just by going out and sharing some of our beliefs, we’ve come across many people who don’t have any particular belief at all. But there are some people here and there who are really looking for a way to know more about God … So I think it just depends on who you cross paths with!”

There are certainly a number of students who are willing to learn about these organizations. Each of these clubs differ to some degree in their goals and beliefs, so students who are searching for the right religious community are bound to find one that suits them.

For instance, Zion Bible Study Club is relatively unconventional in its teachings and practices compared to other Christian organizations.

“One of our core beliefs is that the day of worship is Saturday, which may seem different but it is actually a teaching in the Bible,” Bernal said.“Another core belief that stands out is that we believe in God the Mother, since She is prophesied to be revealed in our time frame according to the book of Revelation. We believe that salvation can only be given when we come to realize both God the Father and God the Mother by studying the prophecies in the Bible.”

Other organizations, like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, fall in line with a more traditional understanding of the Bible. Typically, Christians do not believe in God the Mother and go to church on Sunday rather than Saturday.

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Zion Bible Study Club, which is part of the World Mission Society Church of God, is aware that most people are not familiar with and do not share, their beliefs.

“I think what sets us apart the most is our belief that the second coming of Jesus Christ has already taken place according to Biblical prophecy  and that God the Mother, whom we believe in, was also prophesied to come to the earth with Him,” Bernal said. “So we believe They both have already come and are now giving salvation to those who receive Them, just the way Jesus did 2,000 years ago,” . This belief makes us different because when you ask other organizations, most believe that Jesus has not yet come a second time and that God the Mother is not biblical.”

In addition to their teachings, Christian organizations at UCSD also vary in their activities of worship. Some gatherings are more informal, like Navigators’ large-scale meetings featuring a message and worship, while others, like Zion Bible Study Club’s seminars on scripture, are more formal. Religious organizations also commonly hold community service events. For instance, InterVarsity hosts a weekly outreach program for homeless people throughout San Diego.

Like any other type of club, spiritual organizations also have their share of social activities. For example, InterVarsity hosts an end-of-the-year semiformal where members can enjoy a night of dancing and socializing.

Bernal shared more about Zion Bible Study Club’s social events.

“On campus, we host Game Nights as a way for students to come out and de-stress during the times that we know the stress levels are high and students are feeling exhausted. Through these kinds of events, we hope to share the love of God to all people!”

Religious organizations, then, are seemingly similar to other non-spiritual student organizations in their structures and activities. Yet there’s a general attitude among students that religious organizations should be avoided. It seems that any UCSD student is bound to have a story about unwanted run-ins with Christian organizations.

Esmeralda Lara, a John Muir College junior, has one such story. After attending an art show hosted by Zion Bible Study Club, one of its members invited Lara to a one-on-one Bible study session.

“A member asked me if I wanted to do Bible study with her, and I agreed because she was very persuasive,” Lara said. “Then I started seeing her for about an hour each week for a month or two, but she always tried to discreetly extend the Bible study session. I would have to tell her I had class. I just didn’t agree with a lot of the things she was teaching me from the Bible so I stopped the Bible study altogether. It just definitely wasn’t for me.”

Sometimes these stories are much more severe and can give rise to full-blown controversy. For instance, earlier this year, Zion Bible Study Club was rumored to be a front for sex trafficking.

These claims originated in college campuses in Kentucky and spread from there, as the Christian organization has chapters established on campuses nationwide.

“I’d say the hindrance with [the allegations] is that many people were quick to judge based on a false rumor,” Bernal said.“Just by us introducing ourselves as Zion Bible Study Club, people would say, ‘I know who you guys are. I heard you guys kidnap young ladies in a van.’ So many of our members were told things like that directly to their faces. The whole time we all thought to ourselves, ‘Where did that come from?’ And also, ‘I don’t have time for that! I go to UCSD! I have midterms and finals coming up!’”

Authorities investigated the organization and were able to clear up these false rumors. The controversy, unfortunately, had a lasting effect on the organization’s reputation: In the aftermath of these reports, club members were sure to have links to police reports denying the rumors on-hand to defend themselves.

“I think many people believed it because it spread online really fast,” Bernal said. “But it’s a good reminder of the importance of checking your sources of information and just thinking about how your words can affect the lives of others before you speak.”

Certainly, the sex trafficking controversy goes to show just how impactful words can be. Speech and religion, though at times divisive, are free to be expressed. At the end of the day, Christian student organizations function like any other club — exercising their right to share what they’re passionate about, and fostering community in the process.

“I think the UCSD community generally feels pretty skeptical about religious organizations because [people] are unsure of their intents,” Rubio said. “The assumption that their only desire is to convert everyone gives religious organizations a negative perception. Immersing yourself in these spaces to learn more about different spiritual backgrounds can go a long way in dispelling these assumptions.”

The Zion Bible Study Club would like to thank Aurora Sainez and Thalia Mancilla for their contributions to this feature.

Art by Anthony Tran.

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